Motivating our students


By Chuck Sandy

Please Stop Talking About Motivation

When we say someone is unmotivated, what we often mean is they are not doing what we think they should be doing. When we say we ourselves our lacking motivation, what we often mean is

“I don’t feel like doing anything today” or “I don’t feel very well” or even “I don’t feel like I belong here.”

It sounds like depression, doesn’t it?

Openly confessing to being unmotivated is sometimes a small act of personal rebellion and sometimes a call for help. When it’s a call for help, having to listen to someone talk about motivation will just make things worse.

Our students don’t usually use words to describe their inner states. They act them out in ways that can look like a lack of motivation but isn’t. When we see someone doing this, we have to stop and say to ourselves,

No, I am not going to walk over and give a lecture on the importance of being motivated.

Yet, sometimes we do what we have just told ourselves we shouldn’t. Why do we do this?

Often it’s because we mistakenly feel it’s about us. It’s not about us, yet we look at a student acting out and looking openly unmotivated and think, “I am not reaching this student, do not know how to reach this student, and the only thing I can think to do is stop this behaviour because it’s a threat.” Such thoughts occur to all of us. We’re human.

I’ve got a student who worked hard getting me to notice how unmotivated he is. Every time he slouched down or pulled out his mobile or indicated he has no book, pen, or paper, he looked at me to see if this would be the moment I walked over and used the voice of authority on him – the one he’s probably had used on him all his life.

He acted out. I responded in a normal way. He stopped what he was doing, and then started doing something doubly annoying. I ignored that because it wasn’t bothering anyone except me. Instead I commented on something else and walked away. It was a stand off that lasted until one day he could stand it no longer.

As I approached his group to talk to another student, he looked up and said in a loud angry voice “I’ve got a headache, alright?” I was completely taken aback. He glared at me, repeated this line in an angrier voice, and then waited. I confess, I almost said something different from what I did say, but what I did say was,

“I’m sorry to hear that. Why don’t you go to my office and take a nap. The door’s open.”

He picked up his bag, turned to me, and said, “I’m not stupid, you know.” I said, “I know that. I didn’t say you are. I said maybe you could use a nap. My office is a great place to take naps.” He stormed off without another word.

An hour later, he came in, sat down, asked someone what we were doing, and started doing it. At the end of class, when the room was empty he said, “You have a nice office” and left. That was about a month ago. Since then he’s become what some might call a motivated person. He’s pleasant, brings his materials and participates.

Why do people act like this and what happened there?

I have no idea, but clearly there was much more than a nap involved. Some wall fell down. A new understanding was born between us and something important happened.

People sometimes work hard at putting up fences to keep others from coming in their inner world and messing things up. I don’t know why people do that, but they do. If you’re going to be a teacher, you have to understand this has nothing to do with motivation and nothing to do with you. Your job is to wait patiently, look for an opening in the fence and when you see it, reach in and say the right thing. A miracle happens when we are able to do this.

It’s as simple and as complex as that.